Tuesday, May 12, 2020

An Appealing Fox Biopic Earns its Stars & Stripes

20th Century Fox’s entertaining 1952 retelling of John Philip Sousa’s life, covering his 1890’s success as the leader of the Marine Corps’ marching band through key years fronting the renown Sousa Band, Stars & Stripes Forever differs from many of the biopics of this era in bypassing major dramatic elements such as alcoholism or other addictions and/or unsavory elements (see Love Me or Leave Me or just about any 1950’s Susan Hayward film of this ilk) to depict a life largely free of controversy. This could come across as stale and uninteresting (one of the film’s big moments finds the conductor stepping away from his post to dance a two-step with Mrs. Sousa), but great charm is found in Stars unpretentious narrative, with veteran director Henry Koster capability helming the proceedings and wisely keeping the running-time at a brisk 89 minutes and, most importantly, a group of charismatic, ingratiating performances by the leads helping to win the audience over.

From his initial scene wherein Sousa is seen buying 150 dozen pairs of white gloves for his chosen profession, Clifton Webb is fully in his comfort zone as the practical, precise bandleader, and although he can still pull off a caustic line second-to-none, he seems friendlier than usual and even smiles a few times. Webb is great at not overdoing anything here, playing in a simple, straightforward manner throughout, and he isn’t afraid to even look (aptly) a little foolish when Sousa starts to bellow the lyrics to one of his songs in less-than-impressive fashion. As Mrs. Sousa, Ruth Hussey has a wonderfully direct, knowing manner in her scenes, without ever coming across as phony or saccharine, a merit that applies to the other actors and the overall film as well. Hussey’s likeable professionalism is in perfect sync with Webb’s casual adeptness, and they make an endearing combo (and yes, that scene wherein Mr. and Mrs. Sousa dance the two-step around a ballroom is a winner in the hands of these two skilled performers). 

The handsome Robert Wagner, playing a young Marine who becomes a key member of the Sousa Band, is eager, pleasantly vacuous, and completely irresistible in a breakthrough major role after scoring as military officers earlier in the year in What Price Glory and, specifically, the hit Hayward biopic With a Song in My Heart. Every time Wagner turns on that mega-watt smile with an impact that would possibly even make Julia Roberts jealous, any greenness he might show as a novice performer is swept under the soundstage, and you can see why his career was off and running in short order. As his lady love, Wagner is beautifully paired with Debra Paget, the ideal 1950’s ingénue (IMO, at least- she might win the title based on her 1956 output alone; throw in Broken Arrow and it’s a no-brainer and step aside, Mitzi Gaynor), whose typical spiritedness and earnest approach are well-suited to her role as a young singer looking to break into the Sousa Band. Paget’s style also meshes superbly with Wagner’s playing- Wagner and Paget’s characters could be deemed conventionally “cute’” as is the case with many young onscreen lovers back in the day (and maybe still today) but, both in appearance and in possessing an easy, unforced youthful energy, they’re so damn perfect together that the audience is completely with them in every scene. Also, as a classic movie geek I waited patiently thinking surely George Chakiris, the good-luck charm of many a Fox or Paramount musical of the period, would have to show up and (in the words of the late, great Rosemary Clooney during her commentary on White Christmas) “gorgeous George” didn’t let me down- Chakiris waltzes by a few times in that ballroom sequence mid-way into the film.   

I admit to vapidity regarding becoming completely enamored with a movie showcasing gorgeous Technicolor, regardless of if the film has any merit besides this asset. Although Stars and Stripes has the aforementioned advantages, the terrific restoration effort put in for the Blu-Ray of Stars provides abundant pleasures for the eye to behold. Every scene appears pristine, and it’s rare to see this much work put in to make a classic film not extremely well-known (as opposed to a The Wizard of Oz) come out looking like gangbusters- thank you, Fox! Stars did well upon its initial release (a late-December 1952 release, it earned $3,000,000 in rentals and placed in the top twenty-grossing films of the year according to Variety) but I can’t remember seeing it aired much or being in any conversation of memorable movies of its period, musical or otherwise. It was great to finally watch it and find Stars to be such an enjoyable viewing experience. As Fox has been bought out by Disney, grab a copy of this worthy classic title sooner rather than later, for a very pleasant way to spend 90 minutes.


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